The television series “Downton Abbey” has been a wildly successful British cultural export. The riveting saga of the Earl of Grantham’s family and servants has introduced the world to the manners, society and snobbery of the turn of the century. Yet the tales of intrigue, adventure and romance around Highclere Castle in Hampshire—where “Downton Abbey” was filmed—are just as interesting as the fictional versions.
The most famous member of the family was George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, great-grandfather of the current incumbent. In 1922, the Earl and his team of archaeologists, including renowned colleague Howard Carter, discovered the ancient tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. It was front-page news around the world.
However, this spectacular archaeological find carried a high cost shortly afterward when Lord Carnarvon accidentally cut open a mosquito bite while shaving and the wound became infected. The infection then spread to his blood and he died soon after in his hotel in Cairo. The Earl’s untimely death was blamed on the so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs” which is supposed to strike anyone who disturbs the mummy of an ancient Egyptian king.
Then, believers in the curse made the same connection after most of the Earl’s remarkable collection of Egyptian antiquities was taken from the family and sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York because of the threat of inheritance tax. Yet, the story had a happier ending when, in 1987, a number of treasures were unexpectedly discovered in a cupboard at Highclere; these are now on exhibit in the cellars underneath the castle along with other replica Egyptian artifacts.
The historical connection between Highclere and the Carnarvons dates back to 1679, but the original building was constructed around a series of older houses and the original foundations that date back more than 900 years. The spectacular frontage that makes it one of the world’s most photogenic stately homes is the product of a large-scale remodel and rebuild that took place from 1838 to 1842 at the request of the 3rd Earl. It was carried out by celebrated architect Sir Charles Barry and happened around the same time Barry was helping to rebuild the Houses of Parliament in London, which he had designed. The similarities between Highclere and the Palace of Westminster are striking.
Barry’s design of Highclere was in the high Italianate Victorian style and the building is one of the most important examples of mid-Victorian architecture in England. The castle is further regarded for its gardens, modeled in 1771 by England’s most famous garden designer, Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
For the modern-day visitor, walking into the castle is to immediately recognize many of the key locations in “Downton Abbey.” For example, the library, with thousands of ancient books, some from as long ago as the 1500s, features in many meetings between the fictional Earl of Grantham and his family and staff. In reality, in the 19th century, it was used as a withdrawing room by the 4th Earl to welcome statesmen and men from literature and the arts. In fact, the ladies also had their own drawing room that is still used by the family and was popular with the fictional Dowager Countess played by Dame Maggie Smith.
Away from the glamour, though, Highclere’s finances were in turmoil for many years, even after the sale of the 5th Earl’s Egyptian treasures in the early part of the 20th century. Fortunately, his wife Almina was an heiress of the Rothschild family and her generosity ensured the castle’s survival for many years. Almina was another fascinating member of the Carnarvon family and was one of the best-known socialites of her day. After the Earl’s death, she funded hospitals in London and would become renowned for her nursing abilities.
Following World War II, however, taxes were hugely increased on British stately homes and wages rose steeply, so the cost of maintaining great houses became increasingly difficult, and Highclere faced a constant battle to pay its way. That was until the fees from television and movie filming came along and helped balance the books. In modern times, the castle became a perfect location long before “Downton Abbey,” previously welcoming various British TV series as well as movies including Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood Prince of Thieves“ and “Eyes Wide Shut,” directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Yet, it was the phenomenal worldwide success of “Downton Abbey” that put Highclere on the map for tens of millions of fans of British history and allowed the Carnarvons to welcome increasing numbers of visitors to tour the castle. A veritable Downton industry has spawned a huge range of merchandise, books, tours and much more including several high-class weddings per year, regular conferences and other events like the county show. These generate income to help meet the annual costs of running Highclere, an amount that totals around $1 million annually.
And, if you want a few royal stories, then last year Queen Elizabeth II stayed at Highclere shortly before her 90th birthday celebrations, while in 1895 the 5th Countess spent nearly half a million pounds on a weekend of entertainment for the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). That amount converts to over £50 million, or $59.4 million in modern currency.
Now, the parallels between the past, present and fiction are stronger than ever, and so this historical legacy of Highclere and its current successful state are in good hands with George, the 8th Earl, and the Countess, Lady Fiona. Highclere is well worth a visit but it is closed to the public on a number of occasions, so it’s well worth checking to make sure that you chose the correct weekday. Or you could visit on a weekend, which gives every “Downton” fan a chance to recreate one of the show’s most quoted lines spoken when Dowager Lady Grantham famously asked in the series: “What is a weekend?”
The book At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at The Real Downton Abbey by Lady Carnarvon is on sale via the official website HighclereCastle.co.uk while Lady Carnarvon’s blog can be found at LadyCarnarvon.com.